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May 11, 2006

9 Questions for Victor Temple


photo of Victor TempleOn Monday, Victor Temple (left) was tying up last minute details for this weekend's big performance/'70s costume ball at New World Ballet in Arcata, painting the walls and fixing an unruly toilet. Before sitting down for an interview he stood in the front foyer of the Old Creamery Building and explained, enthusiastically, that tomorrow he'd start sanding the floors. It's all part of the job when you work for a nonprofit dance company, and Temple seems to relish his role as its artistic director (and de facto handyman).

Under Temple's leadership, the New World Ballet — formerly the New World Youth Ballet — has experienced a rebirth, opening classes to adults and incorporating contemporary styles of dance to its foundation on classical ballet. Reinforcing its new direction, Temple managed to book renowned West African dance instructor Alseny Soumah from the National Ballet of Guinea to teach a three-week program at New World in July. This Friday's end-of-year event is a fundraiser to bring Soumah to Arcata and raise money for Temple's production of Dracula in October. Following Friday's performance — which will include music by local bands, bellydancing, Capoeira, and swing by area dance troupes — there will be a disco costume party at 10 p.m. and Temple will finally let down his hair, literally, and unleash his cornrows for the occasion.

The Journal talked with the longtime ballet dancer and choreographer about dance, his travels and how he came to be in Arcata. (For further details on Friday's performance see this week's Calendar.)

1. How did you get your start in dance?

OK. Well, it started off with this girl, who was an exchange student. Her name was Joanne. At the time I wrestled and ran track and played football. This is in Highland, Indiana, right outside of the Chicago area. So this young lady, Joanne, told me, "If you want to be better at sports you should take ballet." At the time she could have told me to jump off a cliff and I would have done it just because I knew that she was involved in it. I was trying to be around her. So I started ballet and I started to progress. The teacher said, "OK. I really want you to be here." I was the only black kid and the only boy out of 36 students.


2. Was that difficult, being the only African-American and the only boy?

You know, in this profession, being an African-American male in classical ballet is very challenging. There's still the mentality that certain types of people or certain skin colors only belong in certain areas. And that still goes on to this day. Needless to say, 20 years ago it was very prevalent.


3. From Indiana, where did you go?

At 18 — no, 19 — I became a member of the Dance Theatre of Harlem. I stayed there until 1996, and from there I had choreographed a ballet with the former artistic director of Joffery Ballet, her name was Ann Marie DeAngelo. It was a lifetime opportunity.

So I choreographed my first big ballet, based on the Old Testament story of Lillith. And in that ballet I used a break dancer and a rhythmic gymnast and all of these eclectic dance forms; we've got this rhythmic gymnast and Mr. Wiggles from Rock Steady Crew. I didn't think it would be well received, but it was, and it aired on PBS. After that, a dancer from Joffery Ballet had seen the video tape and this dancer gave it to officials in China and they called me up and said, "We like your work, and we were wondering if you would come to China." I said, "Yeah. OK. Of course. I'll do it."

I was only supposed to be in China for three months and I wound up staying four years. I worked for Central Ballet of China, Shanghai Ballet, I taught at Beijing Dance Academy and I choreographed for Hongzhou Song and Dance group.


4. What was it like living in China?

It's like everywhere else. We have all these misconceptions about what China is. "Ooh, Chinese people are so different than we are." They're not. They want the best things for their families and for themselves, a nice, good life, like everyone. That's what I've found in all of my travels. No matter where we go, everybody feels the same. That's why it's no problem for me to leave the Bay Area, or the East Coast, and to be in Arcata.

So I finished my work and returned to America, and I called the new artistic director of Oakland Ballet. Her name was Karen Brown. I wanted to congratulate her on becoming the first African American female artistic director of the Oakland Ballet Company. And she said, "Do you want a job?" So three days later I'm driving from New Jersey to Oakland.


5. What brought you to Arcata?

OK. So I'm dancing with Oakland Ballet. In the first year, Karen Brown gave me a note to do some guest work in Arcata [at the New World Youth Ballet] and give [artistic director] Nadine Cole a call. I first talked to a couple of friends about Arcata. People said, "No, you don't want to go up there. It's gonna be boring. It's just a bunch of hippies in redwood trees and it's not going to be fun." So I took everybody's advice and said, "I'm not going up there."


6. But eventually you did. What did you think of Arcata when you arrived?

When I was coming into McKinleyville Airport, I could see the ocean right here. I could see the mountains right there. At that moment, in the plane, I was like, "I love this place. This is nice. This is lovely." So I came here and we did Midsummer's Night Dream. Kazi Cook was my partner. I fell in love with the people up here. I don't know about all of Humboldt County, but I know about Arcata.

So I went back to Oakland Ballet, and in my off time I would come back up and visit friends or go to a reggae show. Then I came back up to do Nutcracker as a guest artist with my friend Kevin Atkins. So, Nadine came to the performance, and in true fashion of Nadine she came over and gave me a big hug, just like grandma, and she said, "Oh, you look good." And then she said, "What were you doing on stage?" She started correcting me: "Cross your feet and do this and nah, nah, nah."

And the thing is, Nadine danced with all of my teachers, she knows all of my teachers. The way that she teaches and her syllabus — it's exactly what I remember in the things I was trained on. So there was a connection. Nadine, that night after the performance, said, "I would like to talk to you tomorrow." We went and had coffee and she said, "I want you to take over." So I left everything I had going in Oakland.


7. What's your motivation to teach?

The reason I'm so motivated to do it is because of my first teacher, Dame Sonia Arova. When she passed away I contacted her husband, Thor Sutowski. I basically said, I want to thank you for everything that you've done, and I don't know where I'd be right now, or how my career would have gone, or what kind of person I would have turned out to be without the discipline I had at that time, but I want to thank you and ask you, what can I do to pay you guys back? And he just said to pay it forward. So that's what I did, and I fell in love with the community here.


8. What does being an artistic director entail?

I teach all of the classes from the ages of maybe 8 years old — levels two and three — to 80. All of the students younger than that, Kazi has. And I install sprung floor, and paint and do toilets.


9. If you weren't a dancer, what career would you like to have?

I definitely would have been a lawyer. My mother was a lawyer for the ACLU. So I grew up in a very fair household. Everything was fair. There was never an answer of "Because." "Why can't I do this?" "Because." There was never that. My parents always let us know exactly why you can or cannot do something. My dad was a drill sergeant. So you better have a good argument for everything. And whatever you believe in, you better truly believe in it. That's why I was so stubborn and focused on what I wanted to do.


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